Firing a rather tepid opening salvo in Hollywood’s annual Valentine’s Day rom-com blitz is When in Rome starring Kristen Bell (Forgetting Sarah Marshall TV’s Veronica Mars) and Josh Duhamel (Turistas the Transformers flicks) and directed by Mark Steven Johnson (Ghost Rider Daredevil). You read that correctly: Johnson a guy who gave us two critically-reviled comic book flicks was tapped by Disney to direct a movie entirely devoid of acrobatic fight sequences or computerized visual effects the only filmmaking skills for which he’s received consistent praise. Hmmm ... maybe this is why Dick Cook was fired.
Bell plays Beth a high-strung New York City museum curator whose frustration over her barren love life spills over at her sister’s wedding in Rome where she winds up drunkenly splashing around in the city’s fictional “Fontana D’Amore.” The embarrassing but harmless episode takes a momentous turn however when Beth absentmindedly steals a handful of coins from the fountain unknowingly triggering an ancient Italian curse. Soon she’s romantically besieged by a diverse and highly aggressive group of oddballs played by Danny DeVito Dax Shepard Will Arnett and Jon Heder — the very men whose coins she plucked from the fabled fountain.
The concept isn’t entirely without potential but When in Rome’s script takes the quartet of previously funny actors and comedically castrates them forcing them to survive this creative Dust Bowl on precisely one joke apiece. DeVito playing a sausage magnate emits only meat-related quips; Shepard’s self-obsessed model explores the comic possibilities of his washboard stomach; hapless street artist Arnett plasters the city with nude portraits of his unrequited love; and Heder’s wannabe magician mounts a series of botched magic tricks. (In a gag that might have been funny back in 2004 Efren Ramirez Napoleon Dynamite’s Pedro enjoys a cameo as Heder’s videographer. He’s this week’s winner of the Jeff Zucker “How Does This Guy Have a Job?” Award.)
All of which serves to delay the inevitable coupling of Bell and Duhamel two likable leads who gamely trudge through material so inane so bland — and so safe — that it could fit comfortably in one of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s increasingly soporific family comedies. In fact I’m not even sure if When in Rome made use of the standard PG-13 allotment of one F-word (used in a non-sexual manner of course). Expect to hear it used liberally however by fellow audience members as the credits roll on this middling debacle.
Exposition is often an unfortunate but necessary evil in movies but at least Smokin' Aces hammers it immediately. After we are privy to everything two FBI agents (Ray Liotta and Ryan Reynolds) overhear during a tapped phone call at mob boss Primo Sparazza’s (Joseph Ruskin) home the table is quickly set: There’s a $1 million bounty on the head of magician Buddy ‘Aces’ Israel (Jeremy Piven) for squealing. It’s a hefty sum and as we’re then told by a bail bondsman (Ben Affleck) interested in collecting the “reward ” a veritable all-star team of criminal masterminds has lined up to try and smoke Aces--including: the Tremor brothers (Chris Pine Kevin Durand Maury Sterling) a trio of uber-sadistic skinheads; a tag team of feministic hitwomen (Alicia Keys Taraji P Henson); a ruthless knife-wielding madman (Nestor Carbonell); a near shapeshifter (Tommy Flanagan) himself a sort of magician; and the bail bondsman narrator’s two buddies (Martin Henderson Peter Berg) and oddball lawyer (Jason Bateman). Not only is everyone up against the Feds but they’ll also have to survive Aces’ henchmen (Common Christopher Michael Holley) and each other’s lust for the (blood) money. Not that he’s the proverbial “lead”--no one really is--but Piven in his first true Entourage-afforded role is the story’s central figure. Surprisingly deep and multilayered Piven’s performance is very strong and affecting but buried beneath constant rapid cuts to one of the seemingly infinite other characters’ high-octane arcs. Reynolds ably switching from Van Wilder-type roles to cop with a 'tude is the closest thing to a good guy along with his partner in non-crime Liotta who was a perfect fit in the director’s Narc just like he is here. But the baddies are where the real fun’s at. It’s fine that Affleck’s role is extremely short but out of his crew for Henderson (The Ring) to get more face time than Bateman is criminal. Bateman’s performance is quick-witted a la his Arrested Development character but even funnier. Oh well--onto the musician actors: Common and Keys both essentially making debuts simply perpetuate the truism of musicians having a much easier time of acting than vice versa especially Keys who plays totally against the pop-queen image she’s built via music. Andy Garcia also has a small and predictable role as an FBI deputy and Matthew Fox makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo.
Writer-director Joe Carnahan picked a bad release time. The buzz-ards feel the need to compare it to the recently Oscar-ed The Departed and hell you'd think Pulp Fiction was just released too with the way Tarantino's name is being name-dropped. Neither is fair and truth is the only similarity is the casual bloodshed and its often comedic context courtesy of Carnahan. The director who burst onto the scene with ‘02’s aforementioned Narc doesn’t reinvent the wheel here but he’s not ripping off anyone more than any other director. He actually imparts a good deal of originality for the better part of the movie blending comedy with carnage at breakneck speeds. The issue of not having a traditional “hero” also has its pluses because you’ll never be able to look at someone’s face and name and predict his or her lifespan. But still the story is where Smokin' Aces falters. The beginning and end seem like pieces of two different flicks and nothing more than stabs at coolness is actually transpiring in between. Ultimately Carnahan’s spunky effort makes for great but forgettable fun; however you get the feeling he didn’t quite want it to be so forgettable.